Ten national parks have been constituted in New Zealand, covering 5,019,388 acres, one-thirteenth of the country's land area. They are administered under legislation designed “for the purpose of preserving in perpetuity as National Parks, for the benefit and enjoyment of the public, areas of New Zealand that contain scenery of such distinctive quality or natural features so beautiful or unique that their preservation is in the national interest”.
New Zealand's national park system had its beginning only 15 years after the world's first national park – Yellowstone, in the United States – was established. In 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino and other Maori chiefs presented to the Crown the land within a radius of 1 mile of three volcanic peaks in the centre of the North Island – Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe. These peaks were tapu (sacred) to the Maori people, and the gift was made on condition that the land would be preserved as a national park. In 1894 the Government passed legislation constituting the three peaks and surrounding land as Tongariro National Park.
Six years later Egmont National Park was constituted, and in 1904 Fiordland was proclaimed a national reserve, administered under the Scenery Preservation Act and the Tourist and Health Resorts Control Act. Arthur's Pass and Abel Tasman Parks were established by the Public Reserves, Domains, and National Parks Act 1928, so that by 1952 there were five national parks – Tongariro, Egmont, Abel Tasman, and Arthur's Pass – administered by park boards, and Fiordland, a public reserve administered by the Department of Lands and Survey.
Increased post-war interest led to a review of park administration to achieve uniformity in policy and management. As a result, the National Parks Act of 1952 was enacted which repealed legislation affecting existing national parks, brought them all under the new Act, and established the National Parks Authority, representative of private organisations and Government Departments with interests in the parks, to exercise general control. The National Parks Authority is almost entirely Government financed. Its task is to preserve parks in their natural state and so to administer them that the public, in the words of the National Parks Act, “may receive in full measure the inspiration, enjoyment, recreation, and other benefits that may be derived from mountains, forests, sounds, lakes, and rivers”.
Each park is under the control of a separate park board which carries out development and licenses private enterprise to establish amenities for the park users. Suitable parts are set aside as wilderness areas where, to ensure the preservation of the natural state, development is restricted to access by foot tracks. A Supervisor of National Parks assists the Authority in coordinating and integrating the detailed working of the individual parks, and permanent park rangers appointed by the boards are responsible for development, protection, and interpretation of the parks to visitors. The Department of Lands and Survey is the executive agency for the National Parks Authority and Boards.
Park headquarters are being established in each park as information centres and to house historical displays and exhibitions of flora and fauna. Many of the parks have alpine gardens, and short nature walks have been established with named trees and shrubs.
Five new parks have been constituted under the 1952 Act – Mount Cook (1953), Urewera (1954), Nelson Lakes (1956), Westland (1960), and Mount Aspiring (1964).